Youth Group – Skeleton Jar

Youth Group
Skeleton Jar

At last – four months into the year, an album finally worth being excited about. Like all things Youth Group, this album comes under the cover of night, underrated by a populace training their gag reflexes on the guitar cocks of Jet et al. Three years after the band’s sensational debut, and following the departure of longtime member Andy Cassell (spot the irony – he manages The Vines), Youth Group has reformatted, reformulated, and reintegrated its musical vision. This time, it’s dangerous.
If the darkened cover and alienated art work don’t tip you early, this is a dark album. Gone are the well-lit celebrations of Urban & Eastern, and gone also are the eight-minute-plus slabs of epic guitar swordplay. Tightened, taut even, but with the unmistakable melancholic voice of Toby Martin remaining pure and potent, it’s as if trauma has shown them the only way out of hell is to make their own.
It all starts with a drumbeat, a jangly Birds-like guitar wrangle, and then Martin comes over, “lost in this purgatory,” and finally the full engine roar comes in for the chorus, “Shadowland,” the song’s title, repeated over and over, with only a sliver of hope, “I want to float upon the memories, not sink into the gloamy (or is it gloomy?) seas,” and finished with a confirmation, an embracing of the possibility. “Last Quarter” is more bombastic, youth radio-friendly, and maybe the least successful of the 11 tracks, if only for the lack of entries and possibilities the song’s standard structure enforces.
“When everything’s gone at least you’ve got nothing that holds on.” It’s wry poetry that rules in “Lillian Lies,” Martin’s voice narrating the tale of a lost girl on a lost bus in a lost life, “the sky doesn’t cover, it swallows” a warning voice for us all. “Baby Body” is pretty enough, all acoustic slidings, until again the vocal kicks in with “Liz hates her body, her baby body.” Lou Reed is in the house, except the house is a shoddy low-rent shack in the outer Sydney suburbs and we’re scrambling to find change for a loaf of bread. On the next track, “Drowned,” “all my optimism’s drowned, yeah I’m drowned” is sung seductively until feedback-laden chords swamp the message that “hope is all we’ve got left.”
Perhaps the beauty of this album is that every note seems well-placed, every strum thought through, economic in the precision of the pop-coated anger. The songs give you no chance to get lost and no chance to escape their tales and tunes. These aren’t melodies played by rote, Martin’s narrations never sink to the cheap rhyming populism of, say, Paul Kelly. Instead, each thrust seems to affirm Youth Group’s existence, even under the weight of the band’s fractured experience. “I feel like hell; you feel like dancing.” Irony, anger, despair and a howled plead for survival – it’s all here, and the sad, mad thing is that from the stinking maggot-crawling cesspool that is Sydney, something, in its hurt, has emerged to shine a clearer light on our lives, on the conceivabilities of Australian music, on the redemptive powers of rock even in the pits of our own desperation.
In an age of pop idols, false idols, and the harlots, pimps, and whores of the music industry, Youth Group with Skeleton Jar has raised the middle finger. Fuck you has never sounded so good.